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Drugs: The New Alternative Economy Of West Africa


A Boeing 727 from Venezuela carrying an estimated five to nine tonnes of cocaine landed at Tarkint, near the city of Gao in northeast Mali, in November 2009. It unloaded and made a failed take-off attempt, and then was set alight. The drugs were never recovered. An investigation revealed that a Lebanese family and a Mauritanian businessman who had made a fortune from Angolan diamonds were among the backers of the enterprise.

How could such a large plane carrying so much cocaine freely enter a region that, although desert, was neither uninhabited nor ungoverned? A French specialist who wishes to be anonymous claims that a government minister and highly placed people in the army and intelligence services with connections to the former president, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), were involved, as were some members of parliament from the north of the country.

The source said: “It’s a sensitive subject. It goes to the heart of power. When ATT’s regime collapsed, high-ranking officers in the Malian army and intelligence who had links with the drugs trade found themselves totally delegitimised. That’s one reason why the enlisted men and the junior officers took part in the March 2012 coup. The higher ranks had a collection of cars that the entire military budget couldn’t have bought. Drug trafficking brought major benefits: it helped with elections and real estate deals were financed through money laundering operations… Many politicians came to arrangements with the traffickers. If an over-eager soldier stopped a convoy, he’d get a call from someone higher up telling him to let it through. It happened on the border with Guinea in the time of Ousmane Conté, the Guinean president’s son, who was arrested for drug trafficking. ATT turned a blind eye to it. He let things slide. The Malian regime was one of the most corrupt in West Africa.”

Simon Julien (1), a French specialist on the Sahel, has described the situation of competition in northern Mali before 2012, where some had access to drug money and others didn’t. The regime attempted to quell Tuareg rebellions by giving generous funding from drug money to groups opposed to the Tuaregs of the N’Fughas mountains. This backfired. The resultant influx of arms from Libya and of Islamist fighters accelerated the partition of Mali. The part that drug money has played in the destabilisation of the whole sub-region should not be underestimated.

In the Nigerian capital, Lagos, the first illegal lab for producing amphetamines and methamphetamine was dismantled in June 2011. In Cape Verde in October 2011, 1.5 tonnes of cocaine were seized on a beach on the island of Santiago. In June 2010, two tonnes of white powder were found in a prawn-fishing storage facility in Gambia. And in April 2011 in Cotonou, 202kg of heroine were found in a shipping container from Pakistan apparently bound for Nigeria. Cannabis, the only locally produced illegal drug, remains the most common, but it is for local consumption only. Synthetic drugs — cocaine and heroine — are for Europe, Japan or China.

Major drug hub

Since 2004, West Africa has become a major hub for cocaine trafficking, storage and distribution. It caters for between 12% and 25% of European demand: 21 tonnes out of 129 in 2009, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The region offers international drug traffickers a range of competitive advantages: its strategic position between producer and consumer countries; cheap logistics and labour; slack controls and weak law-enforcement; endemic and low-cost corruption; a general climate of impunity.

Midway between South America and Europe, this new staging post receives products from the world’s top cocaine producers, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. It supplies Europe, the second-biggest cocaine market in the world, with a value estimated at $33bn in 2012 (just $4bn less than North America). Cocaine is the second most commonly used drug in Europe after cannabis, with over four million users in 2008, under 1% of the population.

This lucrative trade is considered by international organisations such as the UNODC and the International Narcotics Control Board as a major factor in West Africa’s instability. The economic crisis, and the policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, have eroded the legitimacy of most states in the region. Everything had its price even before the arrival of cocaine; but international criminals handling huge sums of money have made matters worse.

“Transnational organised criminals take a commercial approach: they look for the low-risk, high-return option. Traffickers are after the best routes — where corruption, combined with their tactics, which range from death threats to murder, will give them freedom of movement,” says Pierre Lapaque, UNODC director in West Africa. The cocaine trade is comparable in value to oil or arms trafficking; it’s extremely profitable. In 2012 the UNODC in Dakar (Senegal) calculated that the sale of around 30 tonnes of cocaine generated $1.2bn profit, more than $500m of which was laundered and spent locally. By comparison, last year Guinea-Bissau (a major transit point for drugs) had a budget of just $237m.

Cocaine is a high value-added product: it sells for $2,700-4,000 per kilo in its production zones, over $13,000 on the Atlantic coast, $16,000 in the capitals of the Sahel, $24,000-27,000 in the cities of North Africa, and between $40,000 and $60,000 in Europe, according to the anonymous expert quoted above. These are wholesale prices for a product whose purity diminishes along the supply chain.

Deals, and fallings out

For West African police, customs officers and judges, the battle against trafficking is almost impossible: the gulf between their resources and the traffickers’ is vast. The police in Guinea-Bissau sometimes cannot put petrol in their patrol vehicles. That crushes even the most enthusiastic determination, and criminals exploit ethnic and cultural networks, strong diasporas (of Nigerians, for example), language communities and other interests. Most often, a small group of individuals come together for a couple of “jobs”, then separate, link up again — or kill each other.

The networks of drug routes are as many and shifting as the exporters, importers, intermediaries, forwarding agents and helpers. All itineraries and all modes of operation are valid: they juxtapose and join up for greater effectiveness and profit. It’s a chain. From South America to Africa and on to Europe, a single package of cocaine may travel by plane, car and ship. As sea transport is the most common form in the world, the trans-Atlantic cocaine trade makes considerable use of it. But “in the last two or three years, more and more twin-engine planes have been landing in West Africa on abandoned airstrips, or making low-altitude drops,” Lapaque says. “The loads are then picked up by teams on the ground. Trafficking by sea and using ‘mules’ hasn’t stopped. Between 2006 and 2008, fishing boats were more common. Now it’s containers.”

The shortest route from South America to Africa follows the 10th parallel of latitude; it’s used every day by thousands of freighters, fishing boats, sailing boats and cruise ships. European and US law enforcement have made large drugs seizures on “Highway 10”. Containers with cocaine concealed inside are mainly brought ashore in the international ports of Lagos or Lomé (Togo). Fishing boats offload their illegal cargo on to other smaller boats along quiet stretches of coastline, in mangrove swamps or inlets on West Africa’s Atlantic coast.

Nigerian traffickers favour mules, who carry the drugs in small packets or capsules of powder in their luggage, clothes or wigs — or in their stomachs. Their point of entry is usually an international airport, such as Dakar or the Malian capital, Bamako, not always by scheduled flight. Cocaine changes its hiding place and form in the course of its journey: it may be pure or cut, in bars, in demijohns, powdered or liquid, in a sports bag or hidden inside frozen fish. The powder that arrives in West Africa is stored and repackaged, and then transported to European markets, usually via the trans-Sahel-Sahara route through Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad to Libya and Egypt. Even Moroccan hashish follows this ancient route.

‘You risk being ripped off’

The arrival of groups such as MUJAO (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), AQIM (Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) and Ansar Dine in northern Mali has had consequences for the drugs trade. AQIM and MUJAO (2) exact tolls from cocaine convoys that cross their territory and, for a price, supply protection (3). Only a modest amount of AQIM’s income comes from drugs — hostage-taking is much more lucrative — but MUJAO makes more. Contrary to expectations, the division in Mali hasn’t made the trade easier. “A weak state presents an opportunity for traffickers, but a completely disorganised territory is dangerous,” the Sahel specialist told me. “Without reliable support from the army or the police, or from local and national politicians, the security of cocaine consignments can’t be guaranteed. Even if you have struck deals with all the jihadist and MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) groups in the north, you still risk being ripped off.”

That’s why the traffickers have decided to move their business to neighbouring Niger. “Networks are taking shape in Arlit and Agadez [in Niger]. More and more traffickers are moving there from Mali,” said a politician from Niger (4).

In spite of its instability, Guinea-Bissau is one country that has not yet caused the drug traffickers to flee: 15th in the Failed States Index 2012 (just after Nigeria), it is a major hub for cocaine in West Africa. In 2007 the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated that between 800 and 1,000kg of cocaine entered the country by air every night. Ports, airports and even islands have been leased to traffickers with the knowledge of the government, who have abdicated responsibility to the army.

“In almost all cases in 2006-07 that involved the seizure of one to two tonnes of cocaine, there was no prosecution. And in the few exceptions, no sentence was handed down,” a French specialist in the country said. “In Guinea-Bissau, trafficking results from a deal between the army and civil authorities.”

After a period of calm that had lasted since 2008, European anti-drugs agents noticed the arrival of cocaine consignments measured by the tonne in early 2012 — again with the complicity of the (often senior) military. Planes touch down on landing strips in the heart of the country, and sometimes on roads. “The army sees to logistics and protection for the planes: runways, fuel, storage. They don’t take part in organising the trade or reselling the product: they’re just a service provider,” the specialist said.

Top-level alliances

To operate this trade, the international cocaine traffickers, especially the South Americans, forged top-level alliances with Guinea-Bissau’s civil and military leaders. Carlos Gomes Júnior (“Cadogo”), the country’s former prime minister arrested in the April 2012 coup, was suspected of covering up this trade and profiting from it. “Suspicions about Gomes date back to 2008, when a boat disappeared along with its cargo. He was accused of being behind it. The case got shelved,” the analyst recalls. “Not everything is drugs-related,” Lapaque points out, “but it always has to be taken into account.”

In 2011, the chief of staff, Antonio Indjai, neutralised his rival, Rear Admiral José Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, then head of the navy, and took control of the ports. “Bubo” features on the US’s international drugs trade wanted list; he was freed in the 2012 coup but seems to be currently out of action. It seems that the army’s chief of staff, who is close to Gomes Junior, gave his support to the coup only at the last moment, realising that he was better off with the military, a group of clans who pick their own leader.

The April 2012 coup wasn’t just caused by the cocaine trade: there had also been accusations of electoral fraud, historical tensions between politicians and the military, communitarian claims by the Balante (the main ethnic group in the army) and calls for greater recognition for Bissau, the autonomous capital. Fear of reform of the security sector planned by Gomes Junior caused particular alarm: the military opposed it, as it would have forced many of them into unemployment or retirement, with minimal guarantees (tiny pensions, unconvincing retraining schemes). After the April coup, the drug trade went quiet due to the level of disorder, a trend seen after every serious disruption.

Cocaine has become an important new revenue source for some West African elites — just as cannabis has become an alternative cash crop for the continent’s peasants — but its impact on national conflicts needs to be put in context. Drug money feeds conflicts, but it isn’t the prime motivating factor. Control of the traffic and territories was at the heart of the rivalries and score-settling between Indjai and “Bubo” in Guinea-Bissau, and the Tuaregs and the other peoples of northern Mali before 2012. But for those in the military or politics who hold power in Guinea-Bissau, and for the Islamist fighters who are flocking to Mali, and the new rulers in Bamako, the drugs trade is a tool for pursuing political objectives.

Misappropriation of funds at the highest levels of society in West Africa is not limited to the cocaine trade. Drugs get particular attention because of their health consequences and impact on Europe; they push into the background the instability caused by oil smuggling in eastern Nigeria, which is deemed more socially acceptable. They also allow states to justify repressive policies that target street dealers and addicts, while demonstrating complete inertia over economic and social development.

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